Culture, character are nice, but Detroit Lions need dudes. Brad Holmes keeps finding them.

Detroit Free Press

It’s gotta be the sweatshirt, right? After all, how many NFL general managers hit a news conference podium repping their coach on their chest?

As Brad Holmes did Saturday afternoon at Detroit Lions headquarters in Allen Park when he sported a black sweatshirt with a large photo of Dan Campbell ironed onto it? (Not that Holmes did the ironing. Though maybe he would have if Campbell had asked. They’re tight like that.)

Not too many, I’d bet. Or maybe none, who knows? All we need to know is that the general manager and head coach of the Lions are so like-minded they might as well be fraternal twins.

“This is my brother, my guy,” Holmes said, grinning about the latest team merch he was styling.

Would Campbell return the favor?

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Sure, he would … if he could — the team hasn’t made a sweatshirt emblazoned with Holmes’ mug.

“I don’t think they put me on that kind of pedestal in that kind of way,” Holmes joked.

Not yet.

But if his latest NFL draft is anything like his first two, the franchise sure might. Speaking of his latest haul, let’s talk about it. Or, rather, let’s talk about how Holmes talks about it, about the eight players he drafted the last three days, about the players he’s drafted the last three drafts.

You’re familiar with some of the phrases, no doubt. Like this one:

“He’s a football player.”


“He fits our culture.”


“He’s a Dan Campbell type of player.”

Or this one from Saturday, describing his newest tight end, Sam LaPorta, whom he took early in the second round Friday:

“A gritty weapon.”

And there it is: “Grit.” A word that’s synonymous with the Lions, mostly because of Campbell’s penchant to drop it whenever he can, most famously when he addressed his team during HBO’s “Hard Knocks” last summer.

Holmes and Campbell are in lockstep when it comes to the idea of “grit.” But really, they are simpatico in all their descriptions of their players, because such descriptions are an easy way for each to convey what sort of team they are trying to build.

Also, the traits they describe, and the words and phrases Holmes used so often the last three days when he met with reporters, do actually mean something. Yet all those descriptors can cloud the reality of what kind of players this duo seeks.

Sure, who doesn’t want grit? And toughness? And unselfishness? And maturity? And relentlessness?

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No one, obviously.

But take a little closer look at who Holmes just drafted, and who he has drafted the previous two years, and you’ll see a bevy of players worthy of more tangible kinds of descriptions.

Like: athletic. And: fast. And: explosive. And: quick.

The Lions didn’t just win eight of 10 last season because they had a locker-room of “try-hard” guys. The won because they’ve got guys.

And now they’ve got more of ’em.

Guys like Jahmyr Gibbs, who loves football and all that, but who also runs a 4.3-second 40-yard dash, can change direction in a phone booth like Superman changes into a cape, and gets from zero to quick in a blur.

As running backs coach, Scottie Montgomery said:

“He’s a guy that’s … the best space player in this draft.”

Meaning, he can make things happen. So, too, can the Lions other first-round pick, Jack Campbell, at least that’s what Holmes is banking on.

Saturday, he called him the future “anchor” of the defense and not just an “off-ball” linebacker. Clearly, they love his intangibles, and intangibles matter, but not so much without talent.

Campbell measured as the best athlete at his position. He ran a 4.6 40 … at 6 feet 5 and 250 pounds. That’s fast for the size. His vertical leap is 38 inches. His cone split was as good as any linebacker at the NFL combine in five years.

He ain’t a stiff. Nor a plucky baller who got to the league detasseling corn and bailing hay. That’s an insult anyway, and, besides, it plays into tropes, not that Holmes or Campbell do that.

Their trope is the “you-gotta-live-football” trope, and, sure, who doesn’t want to employ folks with passion? It helps, but only so much without certain natural gifts.

And as much as Holmes talks about “culture” and “fit” and “character,” he’s building a roster that’s explosive and fast and athletic. Heck, his first draft pick, Penei Sewell, is as graceful an offensive lineman as you’ll see.

In football parlance, he’s a freak. Holmes seeks that kind of physical ability in just about everyone he takes. He just doesn’t highlight those qualities in the same way to outsiders.

It’s why he referred to LaPorta as a “gritty weapon,” when he could’ve said he’s a “weapon,” because he’s fast for a tight end, and he’s got wiggle in his hips, and balance, and when he runs after he catches the ball, he looks a lot more like a wide receiver than a tight end.

That is what wins games. Can a player make another player miss? Can a player get to the first-down marker on the sideline before the defender does? Can a player out quick the tackle and sack the quarterback?

Technique and focus are obviously critical. Caring about the team is essential in the huddle. But games at this level are won when one player outmaneuvers the other. Amon-Ra St. Brown running a route comes to mind.

Sure, he loves football, too, and his vibe helps buoy the locker room, but in the fourth quarter when the Lions need a first down, what matters is that he can find the open crease or simply beat his man off the line of scrimmage.

So, yes, the Lions are a good story, and the expectation will only intensify as the summer arrives, but it will intensify because this team has talent, not just character and grit. Biting kneecaps and wearing Dan Campbell sweatshirts makes for fun copy and, again, identity matters.

But in the end, it’s about finding dudes. Holmes believes he has. The measurables back him up.

Contact Shawn Windsor: 313-222-6487 or Follow him on Twitter @shawnwindsor.

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